Analysis: Ukraine imposes martial law after naval tensions with Russia

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kerch strait ukraine russia

Key takeaways

  • On 25 November Russian border patrol craft fired on and seized three Ukrainian naval vessels in the Kerch Strait
  • Ukraine has condemned the move as an act of military aggression, and called on the international community to provide defensive support
  • On 26 November, the Ukrainian President announced his intention to impose martial law for a period of 30 days, starting on Wednesday, 28 November
  • Business travel implications include heightened security checks, restriction of movement and curfews

Situational overview

kerch strait ukraine russia

On Sunday, 25 November, Russian border patrol craft operating near the Kerch Strait, located between the Black Sea and the Azov Sea, seized three Ukrainian naval vessels following a confrontation between the two forces.

Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) personnel are reported to have opened fire on two small Ukrainian armoured artillery vessels and a tug boat, after they were determined to have illegally entered Russian territorial waters, and ignored warnings to stop whilst manoeuvring dangerously.

The Russian navy used a merchant ship to block access through a newly constructed bridge that provides the sole access point to the Azov Sea. They then rammed the tug boat with a larger coastguard vessel, before scrambling two fighter jets and helicopters to the area to provide support. The ships were then boarded and seized by federal agents, supported by the Russian military.

The three vessels and their crews are currently being held by the FSB in Crimea where the sailors are receiving medical care. At least six are thought to have been wounded in the incident although their injuries are -not thought to be life threatening.

The Ukrainian government has condemned the move as an act of military aggression, and has called on the international community to provide defensive support.

It claims that Ukrainian vessels have a right to cross through the Kerch Strait, as stipulated in a pre-2014 agreement between the countries, and that they pre-warned the FSB of their route prior to the incident.

The Kremlin has responded by claiming that its navy was acting in defence of its territorial waters and that its behaviour surmounts to a series of precautionary measures. They have also accused Ukraine of enacting a ‘pre-planned provocation’ in order to justify future military measures against Russian occupation.

Tensions in the Azov Sea

Tensions in the wider Black Sea region have been steadily growing since Russian forces annexed the Ukrainian Crimean Peninsula in 2014, after the country’s pro-Russian government was disposed during the Euromaidan revolution. In the following years the Russian Black Sea Fleet has become increasingly assertive in the Azov Sea; a large inland body of water that borders both Russia and Ukraine.

During the annexation, the Russian military seized Ukraine’s largest naval base in Sevastopol, along with the majority of its fleet, leaving it with very few military watercraft. Russia has used this advantage to restrict Ukrainian merchant vessels from entering the Azov Sea and reaching the country’s key trading ports of Berdyansk and Mariupol, by detaining ships.

Moscow has also recently completed the construction of a road bridge which spans the length of the Kerch Strait, which has been criticised for being deliberately low in order to restrict Ukrainian naval access. According to the Ukrainian government these actions have significantly damaged the country’s economy, particularly the manufacturing sector, as iron and steel products from Mariupol once represented 25% of Ukraine’s export revenue.

The Ukrainian military has been making a concerted effort to redevelop its navy in light of this situation through the rapid construction of small, fast, low-cost attack and insertion craft, such as Gurza-M armoured artillery boats. They have also purchased a small number of larger Cold War era naval vessels from the United States. When added to their single existing 3500 ton Krivak class frigate and 250 ton Matka-class missile craft, the vessels only constitute a tiny naval force which is outmatched by the well-provisioned Russian Black Sea Fleet.

As such, Ukraine is in no position to make any retaliatory moves against Russia in the Azov Sea. As such there is little room for further escalation at this time within the maritime realm. However, any sign of further hostility is likely to manifest in Luhansk and Donetsk, where Ukrainian forces are engaged in a protracted conflict with pro-Russian militants. An increase in tensions may result in a major Ukrainian push to retake key areas of these territories and herald a subsequent escalation in armed conflict.

However, Kiev is unlikely to enact such a move without a guarantee of support from NATO, the US and its European allies, and as most of these powers remain committed to de-escalating tensions in the region such an outcome is also unlikely.

Protests in Ukraine

A number of protests have been held in Ukraine throughout Sunday and Monday, as residents and activist groups have strongly condemned the Russian military action. Largely peaceful rallies have been held in Lviv and Dnipro, whilst a violent protest by Ukrainian nationalists took place in Kiev. Over 150 people gathered outside the Russian embassy in the city where they threw projectiles into the site, setting alight a car belonging to embassy staff.

A similar incident also occurred outside the Russian consulate in the eastern city of Kharkiv. During this demonstration, groups of masked men hurled flares and other projectiles into the embassy compound, setting fire to a tree and its surrounding buildings. Many of the attendees are reported to have chanted ‘death to the Russian occupants’.

Further protests of this kind are very likely over the coming days, and travellers in Ukraine should avoid public gatherings and any Russian state assets, as these are likely to become flashpoints for crowd violence.

Martial Law imposed

On Monday, 26 November, the Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko, announced his intention to impose martial law in the country for a period of 30 days, starting on Wednesday, 28 November. The announcement triggered a parliamentary vote which has been marred by bad weather and low MP attendance.

Nonetheless the measure was approved due to presiding fears over national security, despite reservations over the effect it may have on the country’s elections which are set for March 2019.

Poroshenko is currently trailing in national polls due to accusations of corruption and mismanagement, and critics fear that he may use events in Crimea to stall the election.

However, the president conceded to reduce the period of martial law from 60 days, as was originally proposed, to 30 days, so that the measures do not interfere with the election. The period of direct military rule will be in place until 27 December 2018 and applies in Vinnitsia, Luhansk, Mykolayiv, Odesa, Sumy, Kharkiv, Chernihiv, Zaporizhia, Kherson and Donetsk oblasts, as well as the Azov-Kerch Strait basin.

The legislation, which was recommended by the President’s Military Cabinet on Sunday night, does not necessarily herald any further escalation of conflict, although it will have implications for those operating in Ukraine.

Implications for travel and business operations

Each aspect of the state of law and their implications for businesses and travellers are briefly summarised below, ranked from the most to least significant:

Increased security

The Ukrainian armed forces will be tasked with providing additional resources to protect key infrastructure in the country including power plants, transport hubs, airports and government buildings. Travellers can therefore expect to see heavily armed security personnel in attendance at these locations. Officers are also granted permission to conduct routine searches of passers-by and their luggage.

Movement restrictions

Checkpoints may be set up on major roads at the discretion of military advisors and these can be used to routinely stop vehicles for inspection. The security forces have the authorisation to demand travellers present a valid ID (passport for international visitors) and relevant visas. They may also search vehicles, possessions and even accommodation (although the latter is rare) for dangerous items or prohibited substances.


Restrictions on the free movement of Ukrainian citizens and international visitors may be applied at set times in certain urban areas. This can also include blackout periods, where residents are required to minimise their use of domestic energy resources. These measures are unlikely to be imposed in major cities in central and western Ukraine, but may come into effect in front-line areas.

Prohibition of sales

Restrictions will be placed on the sale of certain items, including weapons, alcohol and industrial/toxic chemicals. These measures are introduced to reduce the risk of domestic attacks and allow for materials to be made available to national defence forces. Travellers should be particularly careful to declare such items when bringing them into the country from abroad.

Restrictions on public gatherings

Rallies, protests, demonstrations, strikes, public events and unauthorised congregation will be prohibited. Travellers should ensure they avoid any public gathering in order to minimise the risk of being detained or exposed to police crowd dispersal methods.

Entry and exit rules for conflict zones

The movement of civilians into and out of ‘dangerous’ areas will be heavily restricted. This includes both Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts, areas bordering the Crimean Peninsula, and potentially inland coastal areas of the Azov Sea. Military border guards reserve the right to forcibly prevent residents and visitors from making journeys into these territories by road, rail or on foot.

Compulsory requisition

The state has the power to commandeer private and communal property if necessary, for defensive activities, with compensation paid by the government. In reality this power is unlikely to be used in areas outside of the Donbas region or that are not already involved in some form of military capacity.

Compulsory labour service

Civilian workers who do not participate in critical industries may be required to conduct defence-related work if it is deemed necessary by military command. Although this is unlikely to affect travellers, workforces in the country may be disrupted, although they will be paid for their work and some form of compensation will be paid to employers.

Reallocation of production

Both private industrial and state resources may be repurposed to enable defence operations. This is most likely to affect the manufacturing sector.

For further analysis on the developing situation in Ukraine and to understand how it may affect your operations, contact our Intelligence and Analysis Services team today.

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